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Future Airborne Meshed Network Could Broadcast Air-Ground MRO Data

This week's announcement could impact on the way MRO data is read in future.

The signing on January 17 of a memorandum of understanding between Simi Valley, California-based start-up Airborne Wireless Network (AWN) and lessor Air Lease Corporation (ALC), calling for ALC to market AWN’s planned broadband airborne meshed wireless network to airlines and aircraft OEMs, potentially signals a development that could benefit the MRO world.

AWN plans to create a broadband wireless-network pipeline, offering extremely high-bandwidth telecommunications capacity on a wholesale basis to customers such as telephone companies and Internet providers, by means of microwave-transceiver relay equipment installed in commercial aircraft.

The company’s idea is that every airborne commercial aircraft fitted with its microwave relays would, while airborne, act as a network node point, receiving uplinked broadband wireless data from the ground and from other airborne aircraft and relaying it to others, for eventual downlink to AWN ground stations.

AWN – which holds a widely ranging patent awarded by the U.S. Patent Office in 2001, before broadband wireless broadcasting even was possible, covering the airborne meshed wireless network concept – has trademarked its network concept under the name ‘Infinitus Super Highway’.

While AWN’s main customer focus is on wholesale telecommunications users, Jason de Mos, its VP of business development and aviation compliance – and an experienced airline and business-jet captain – indicated to this reporter recently that AWN was aware of the possibilities the network could offer for aviation-related air-ground data communications.

Should its network generate sufficiently high bandwidth to offer an air-ground voice and data communications service to aviation customers such as airlines, OEMs and MRO companies, as well as a wholesale telecoms network to its core customer group, AWN would be prepared to look at offering services to aviation clients, de Mos indicated.

If its equipment were installed in enough aircraft, AWN’s network would have no single point of failure: if one link dropped off the network for any reason (say, if an aircraft landed and its electrical power was switched off), there would be plenty of other airborne aircraft nearby which would receive the same data and broadcast it on to other aircraft, ensuring the continuity of the broadband network for AWN’s customers.

According to AWN, its proposed network’s multiple-point-of-failure redundancy would differentiate it from existing (and some future) cellular and satellite-based wireless telecommunications networks, which often provide only single-point-of-failure operation, offering no network redundancy and reducing network reliability.

Another point of differentiation is that AWN sees its proposed network as supplementing and complementing existing satellite and terrestrial wireless networks rather than competing with them. Indeed, assuming the concept proves practicable, AWN’s network should prove flexible in design and operation – AWN’s patent is so broad that de Mos labels it “the Walmart Special”.

While the airborne meshed-network concept proposed by AWN (which was founded last August) may at first glance seem far-fetched, ALC’s agreement to sign a strategic marketing MOU represents another significantly positive step in a series of positive developments AWN has experienced since its formation just five months ago.

ALC – founded and headed by ILFC founder and former CEO Steven Udvar-Házy, regarded along with George Batchelor as one of the two fathers of the aircraft operating-lease industry – is one of the world’s largest aircraft lessors. Udvar-Házy’s apparent endorsement of AWN’s concept and prospects gives the young start-up a significant credibility boost as AWN seeks to market its concept to airlines and OEMs worldwide.

In a January 17 news release announcing ALC’s signing of the marketing MOU with AWN, de Mos noted: “Air Lease Corporation is one of the world's largest aircraft leasing companies. We are excited that they are on board to market our system to their worldwide airline customers and to introduce us to manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, with the goal of having our equipment pre-wired on new aircraft.”

Continued de Mos: “Our collaboration will be a big step toward making our vision a reality, as we believe our airborne digital highway is the logical solution to fill the world's connectivity void. This partnership is a perfect fit for our strategy and will contribute significantly to the future of Airborne Wireless.”

Another significant development for AWN came three weeks previously, on December 27, when the company announced in a news release that it had signed an agreement with Electric Lightwave Holdings, Inc.

The agreement calls for Electric Lightwave’s 12,500-mile fibre optics cable and data centre network located throughout the Western United States (and including an undersea cable link to the Hawaiian Islands) to provide the ground segment of the Infinitus Super Highway network. AWN regards its agreement with Electric Lightwave as offering additional significance because it would give AWN access to strategic properties on which it could construct ground stations.

“This agreement will allow our contemplated Infinitus Super Highway, once implemented, to reach the end users,” the news release quoted de Mos as saying. “Without a ground link, users would have no way to access our network. This agreement with Electric Lightwave Holdings, Inc. provides that initial link to the ground, paving the way for ground segment partnerships for the remainder of the United States.”

A month previously, on 28 November, AWN had experienced another significant boost when the FAA awarded the company a project number – ST16664LA-T – for its Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) application to install a microwave broadband transceiver system on Boeing 757-200 aircraft. The FAA awarded AWN the STC project number on a non-interference basis: AWN will only be awarded an STC for the Boeing 757 if it can prove its equipment doesn’t interfere with the operation of all other 757 systems.

Using two Boeing 757s provided by aircraft, engine and parts trading company Jet Midwest Group, with which AWN also signed a partnership agreement, the start-up plans to flight-test its network system in the coming months.

Assuming the FAA awards AWN the Boeing 757 STC following that flight-testing, AWN will own in its entirety the STC, its system description and all associated engineering data, including hardware and software. AWN’s plan is then to seek (and own) additional STCs for other widely operated commercial-aircraft types.

A key feature of AWN’s proposed airborne meshed network concept is that airlines would require revenue or operational incentives to install AWN’s microwave transceivers on their aircraft, particularly on a scale large enough to offer the global coverage which AWN envisions for its network.

AWN has created several scenarios which it thinks could offer sufficient incentives to airlines – including cargo operators, whose aircraft often operate primarily overnight, which would help ensure 24-hour continuity for its network coverage – to agree to install its microwave transceivers throughout their fleets.

One is likely to be some form of revenue-sharing, based on the revenues AWN generated from the amounts of wireless broadband data its network transmitted. Another could be to offer airlines free, or very low-cost, transmission of real-time aircraft and engine health and performance data from all their aircraft to the airlines’ in-house MRO departments or contract MRO service providers. A third, a logical consequence of the network knowing where all its aircraft-borne nodes were at all times, could be to offer airlines free real-time tracking and flight-following capabilities.

There are two other reasons why AWN’s concept, far-fetched though it might initially seem, should not be dismissed lightly by the aerospace industry, airlines, MRO facilities and broadband connectivity providers.

First is that AWN already has in place three more strategic partnership agreements. One is with a long-established technology-development company based in Irvine, California, which has a number of major aerospace-industry companies among its clients.

A second partnership is with a Montréal, Canada-based avionics- and interiors-installation company, also long-established. The third is with an unnamed airline, with which AWN intends to conduct larger-scale flight-testing of its network equipment and concept once its Boeing 757 flight-tests are completed and it obtains its Boeing 757 STC.

The second reason AWN shouldn’t be dismissed lightly is the constitution of its senior management. While its CEO is primarily a real-estate investor, AWN’s Technical Affairs and Development is VP Marius de Mos, Jason’s father and an integral part of the team that developed the original Airfone, the first FAA approved airborne in-cabin wireless commercial telephone system.

Earle Olson, AWN’s VP industry relations, spent most of his 35-year career in business development with Tyco Aerospace, offering a background in in-flight entertainment and connectivity.

AWN also has a two-person advisory board. The board’s Chairman is Alex Sandel, co-founder of Packard Bell Computers, which later became Hewlett Packard. The second is consultant C. Neal Monte, a Certified FAA Designated Engineering Representative offering airframe OEM experience with Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Airbus.

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